Blackboard Course Designs

Effective Course Designs in Blackboard 9

by David S. Hogsette, PhD

An invited lecture delivered at NYiT new faculty orientation learning with technology workshop, 2012

Basic Course Design Concept

I have been using Blackboard (Bb) since 1998 to enhance my face-to-face courses with online content, discussions, group meeting spaces, and synchronous chat. Once my institution adopted the Bb learning management system (LMS), I have put all my online courses into Bb. When we upgraded to Bb9 I radically revised my course layout and design.

In Bb9, it is much easier to create content units and to structure the course sequentially. (See Figure 1.)  I organize the left-hand navigation area into three main sections: General Resources, Course Units, and Helpful Tools. The units are arranged sequentially, and I provide a descriptive title to focus the content or purpose of that unit. Also, I find it helpful to list the inclusive dates for each unit to keep students on task. When students click on the unit title, the unit content area opens up, providing well organized information for that one unit. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 1: Basic Bb Course Layout

In each unit I list the objectives, provide a folder with unit lecture materials, list the specific literary reading assignments for that unit, include other critical readings like articles or book chapters related to the unit topic, describe the journal assignment, include a link for submitting the journal assignment, describe the discussion assignment, and include a link for completing the discussion assignment.

Figure 2: Unit Content Layout

This redesign is extremely labor intensive, and it takes many more hours to design a course by unit than by function or content area. However, my students thoroughly enjoy the new design, and they have told me that it is much easier to navigate the course, to find instructions and information for completing a task, and to submit the completed task. Moreover, I have significantly fewer students who become lost in the course design. Students click on a unit name and find all the information needed for completing the activities in that unit.

Discussion Forums Focusing on Critical Thinking

As I was redesigning the course, I discovered my new unit-oriented structure lent itself more naturally and logically to critical thinking in the discussion assignments. Because I was designing each unit individually, instead of thinking in terms of content areas of a course, my mind was steeped in the subject or topic for a particular unit. When I started working on the discussion activity, my mind was already in a critical mode—I was thinking more specifically about how the lecture materials, unit readings, and unit critical readings tied together. As a result, my discussion questions were more centered on asking students to think critically about how all the unit material related. I found myself using more critical thinking task commands when designing discussion questions, words like relate, compare, contrast, explain, defend, refute, and illustrate. I found it intriguing how the new course designed encouraged me to create critical thinking discussion tasks.

This new unit design also makes the discussion assignment expectations very clear and obvious for the students. In the previous design, I explained the expectations for all discussion assignments (due dates, word count, number of replies, etc.) in one place. Then, I listed the discussion questions in another place. Then, the discussion forums were located in another place. With the new unit design, I include all the necessary information for a single unit discussion activity in one place: the instructions for the task, the expectations and activity guidelines, and a link to the location for completing the task. In this way, the students are reminded of the expectations each time they have a unit discussion activity.

Critical Thinking Journal Entries

Bb 9 has a journal feature that allows students to submit journal activities. However, I noticed that this journal feature itself is not very sophisticated—it is just a document submission feature. However, it did encourage me to include journals in my literature course, and instead of using the journal feature, I use the SafeAssign feature which allows students to submit documents and then checks those documents for plagiarism.

The new unit design also encouraged me to think of the journal assignments in terms of critical thinking pedagogy. One of the most difficult things to teach students to do is to apply what they read to specific cases or examples. However, as I was building the units, I was already thinking in terms of how the unit documents and materials relate to, complicate, enhance, comment on, and problematize each other. I wanted the students to think of the unit material in much the same way, and journals seemed an excellent way to achieve that goal.

The basic model of critical thinking I teach my students involves three basic steps: understanding, critical evaluation, application. I designed the journal assignments around this basic model. After students read lecture materials that provide background content and theoretical information, they read the literature for that unit. Then, I ask them to read a critical article related to an author, genre, or specific literary piece we are studying in that unit. The journal assignments ask students to engage the following basic process: summarize the thesis and main points/arguments of the article (understanding); discuss the extent to which you agree and/or disagree with the article and why (critical evaluation); and explain how the article helps you understand the literature better (application).

The unit design makes it very easy to describe these journal assignments and to provide a SafeAssign link for submitting the completed task. The assignment is clearly described, the expectations are plainly articulated, and students know exactly when and where to submit the finished journal.